Long embraced by athletes and bodybuilders, high-protein powders are gaining favor from a growing number of active consumers. The shift is changing the way some brands are innovating and bringing new players, often armed with healthier and better-for-you formulations, into the fold.
The segment of high-protein powders continued to dominate the powdered sports nutrition category in 2016, accounting for a 72 percent share of total sales, according to Eleanor Dwyer, a research analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International. The products also recorded the strongest current value growth of 13 percent last year with sales of $5.3 billion.
While core users represent the largest consumer segment for protein powders, Dwyer noted that so-called “weekend warriors” are increasingly turning the products to supplement active lifestyles. Moreover, many female consumers are crossing over from weight management and adopting high-protein diets, often infusing protein powders into workout shakes and morning smoothies.
“Manufacturers are capitalizing on this expanding market by launching new products with less complex formulations and more convenient formats, alongside wider distribution via more frequently visited grocery channels,” Dwyer said.
Meanwhile, more Americans are turning to new protein sources, including powder formats, as a way to cut back on consumption of meat, according to new research from Mintel. The market research firm found that not only are many embracing non-animal based proteins, they are seeking more information about ingredients in the products. That mindset has changed the way some companies are formulating protein powders.
“They’re looking to clean up their labels,” said Brian Zapp, Director of Marketing at Applied Food Sciences, Inc., a manufacturer of functional botanical ingredients that works with a number of powder beverage makers. “Their point of differentiation is really a better quality of ingredients, something that is not synthetic.”
While pioneering brands in the space like Vega and Orgain have consistently emphasized clean labels and natural functionality, often in the form of plant-based formulations, the trend is quickly emerging throughout the powder category.
Almond Pro is a maker of almond-based protein powders and targets health-conscious and fitness consumers seeking vegan sources of protein. The company, which markets its products as “made from real almonds, not just almond ‘flavoring,’” uses an innovative pressurization method that removes over half the fat while increasing the protein volume from certified organic and non-GMO almonds. The powders contain 19g of protein per serving, and have no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners. They come in three flavors – chocolate, vanilla and chocolate peanut butter – and are free from lactose, dairy or soy.
Almond Pro president and CEO Caulen Foster views the products as differentiated from other plant-based protein powders because they are less processed and contain essential vitamins and minerals naturally occuring in almonds.
“We’ve specifically formulated Almond Pro so that the only protein you’re getting comes from 100 percent finely ground almonds,” he said.
Like Almond Pro, Vital Proteins is attempting to carve out a niche with a single-ingredient focus: collagen, an animal-based protein that is the main component of connective tissue and bone. Commonly associated with health and beauty care products – as well as bone broths – collagen is often promoted as an essential nutrient for skin, hair, nails, bones and joints. Vital Proteins, which asserts that collagen has been stripped from consumer diets through modern food processing, produces a variety of collagen-based supplements, including unflavored powders. The company promotes fitness recovery as well as anti-aging and general health benefits from consumption of collagen, which it sources from pasture-raised cows in Brazil and New Zealand and wild-caught fish in Hawaii.
Kurt Seidensticker, the founder and CEO of Vital Proteins, said that although most consumers recognize collagen as a functional ingredient, many think it’s synthesized in a lab. It’s a big reason why the company stresses sourcing transparency and a clean ingredient label.
“What we really wanted people to know is that it’s an animal-sourced protein, where it comes from, and how it’s made,” Seidensticker said. “And part of that education process is creating a clean label. When you look at our products, you won’t see xanthan gum or guar gum. You won’t see any artificial sweeteners [or] added sugars. The thought is that you should acclimate your body to true food and whole nutrition.”
The approach is in line with global trends for clean labels, according to Innova Market Insights, a global provider of market research for the food and beverage industries. In a recent report, Innova noted that demand for total transparency “now incorporates the entire supply chain, as a clean label positioning becomes more holistic.”
Vital Proteins is carried in approximately 2,000 retail locations and recently picked up national distribution at Whole Foods and Vitamin Shoppe. Vital Proteins also tapped natural foods broker Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence to support its in-store expansion plans within the natural, conventional and speciality channels.
Seidensticker believes that collagen’s profile as a component in many beauty care products will benefit its development as a food ingredient. On the other hand, moringa, a nutrient-rich botanical, is mostly unknown among American consumers. Nevertheless, a handful of brands are placing big bets on the future of moringa, including protein-rich powders derived from the plant.
In November Zija International, a Utah-based manufacturer of vitamin and food supplements, introduced Core Moringa Plant Protein. The company touts the product as a “complete protein extracted entirely” from moringa. Zija claims that moringa contains twice the amount of protein per gram as yogurt as well as several essential nutrients, including potassium, calcium and vitamins A and C.
Blended with pea and rice protein, Zija’s protein powder contains 20 grams of protein and is vegan, soy-free and gluten-free. Dr. Joshua Plant, the vice president research and development at Zija International and creator of the protein powders, cited a desire to create a highly nutritious protein powder that that was vegan and free from common allergic ingredients.
“It was also important that it qualify as a complete protein, containing all of those essential amino acids in sizable amounts,” he said.
The notion of a complete nutrition protein powder is increasingly gaining favor among consumers, and manufacturers would be wise to take note, said Euromonitor’s Dwyer.
“[Nutrition] gaps can be substantial as the U.S. diet relies heavily on highly processed, pre-packaged or fast food options which are low in vitamins, minerals and fiber,” she said. “Moreover, with increasing consumer interest in health and wellness, Americans have started to look for nutritious products which address these diet deficiencies.”